Jaws (1975)

Jaws (1975)

Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws is pure (but extremely readable) pulp: a zeitgeisty cautionary tale about commercial interests vs. safety, the paranoia about environmental threats spiced with middle-aged sex scenes. Spielberg took what could have been turgid B-movie fare and turned out a masterclass in suspense. It was a massive success – from a budget of $12M US its total gross was well over $400M – and began the era of the modern Hollywood blockbuster. It was the first film to exceed $100M in box office receipts. Jaws built on the mainstream appetite for horror created by films such as The Exorcist, but gave us a monster that was, uniquely, neither human nor supernatural nor the result of mutation. Sharks are real. They’re out there, swimming around, snacking on swimmers, right now. The movie’s success is rooted in this terrifying premise, as well as in the inspiration taken, in terms of marketing and distribution as well as content, from the big monster movies of the 1950s.

Sharkbite

“When I wrote the book and film a quarter of a century ago, knowledge of sharks was in its infancy. We believed that sharks actually attacked boats; we believed that they actively sought out human prey. We believed that their numbers were infinite and the threat they posed incalculable.

Over the years, we have come to know otherwise…”

Peter Benchley in The Guardian (November 8, 2000)

The film initiated the cult of the shark which is still with us today (see Discovery Channel’s endless “Shark Weeks”). Sharks are big, elemental animals. As Hooper tells Mayor Vaughn in the movie, they are eating machines: “All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks and that’s all.” They don’t do anything else. They’ve evolved no further in hundreds of thousands of years. They have mean black eyes and teeth far sharper and scarier than the biggest baddest wolf. They make excellent movie monsters, cruising inexorably towards their victims, and chomping them up without remorse. They operate in the space of many primal fears – under the water. And they seek their prey most frequently at sunset, rushing silently up from the depths as the last rays of sunlight fade from the sky. They represent an absolute, primal darkness, that has nothing to do with superstition, religion, aliens, radioactivity, technology run riot, evil, whatever. Sharks are real.

Jaws 1975
A shark, not THE shark, regrets visiting Amity, in Jaws (1975)

In terms of dark sexual symbolism, a shark can represent both a phallic object and a vagina dentata, making it a creature of nightmares for men and women alike. The shark can be represented as the ultimate slasher, goring and mutilating its victims without a motive. These victims are randomly selected; male, female, young, old whose only transgression was to enter the watery world of the shark. The POV underwater camera takes us into the shark’s mind, and we see that it is casual and indiscriminate in its choice, picking off one pair of splashing legs rather than another simply because.

They’re not, however, monsters. Sharks are shy creatures, who won’t attack human beings unless they are stupid enough to go swimming in an area where a lot of sharks live (admittedly, humans do this after a plane crash – or the sinking of a naval cruiser – so it’s not entirely their fault). Many shark species are also endangered, the result of humans destroying their habitat or, worse, getting all “riled up” and chasing them with harpoons. Bear in mind that mosquitoes kill hundreds of thousands more humans than sharks do, and no one has yet made a horror movie about them (ants, bees, slugs, not mozzies…). Sharks are everything we think a monster should be, yet they are not really monstrous. We instinctively fear them, harking back to early man’s vulnerability to natural predators, but we are happy to do business with Patrick Bateman. Our fear mechanisms have clearly not evolved with our civilisation.

In 2000, Peter Benchley (who quickly came to regret the role he had played in demonizing great white sharks) launched a campaign for shark conservation. He was part of the team who created the documentary Great White, Deep Trouble for National Geographic. He also wrote a non-fiction guide to shark encounters, Shark Trouble: True Stories and Lessons About the Sea, based on his decades as an ocean conservationist. Benchley died, aged 65, in 2006.

The Director

In his first feature, the ABC movie-of-the-week Duel (1971), 25 year-old Steven Spielberg proved he could effectively handle suspense and menace. Shot and edited in 23 days, this simple David and Goliath story concerns a truck tailgating a businessman on a two-lane highway. That’s pretty much it. Spielberg ratchets up the tension by never letting the audience see who is driving the truck, or revealing why he’s chasing his target. By the end of the movie, the threat posed by the driver has reached nightmare level — he keeps coming, he seems superhuman, and absolutely deadly. The TV movie caused quite a stir and kickstarted the mogul’s career. It made him the perfect choice as director when Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel, Jaws, came up for movie adaptation. Spielberg returned to the idea of an unseen menace, combined it with the creature features he had revelled in as a child, and produced the sublime Jaws (1975), proving his worth as a director even with a budget of $12M.

Bruce

In the 1970s, SFX were still largely mechanical – they made life-sized puppets of Linda Blair for The Exorcist, for instance. Therefore three mechanical sharks (all named Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer) were constructed, at a cost of $150,000 each. They worked fine when tested in the workshop, but when shipped out to Martha’s Vineyard for location filming, they sank. This meant that many of the planned shots of the film, where the camera and characters got up close and personal with Bruce, had to be discarded, and frantic improvisation ensued.

Watch this video on YouTube.

This production constraint turned into a real strength in the final cut – the movie is most scary when we don’t actually see the monster, when is it represented through POV shots, darting between one dangling pair of swimmer’s legs and another, or when its location is identified only by bobbing yellow barrels. The shark is a little disappointing when it does turn up, but it really isn’t overexposed until the final reel, when it’s chowing down on Quint.

Spielberg had to stop when the movie ran out of money. Some of the final effects were filmed in the producer’s swimming pool, and there are major continuity errors in the final sequence ( constantly changing weather conditions, amongst others) that could have been corrected by reshoots. Yet it is for reasons of economy that Jaws (and Psycho before it) works so well. As he couldn’t get the action shots he wanted, Spielberg relies heavily on pacing (editing, music) to create suspense, and the camera shows us exactly what we need to see, no more. The narrative is so enthralling, you don’t notice the cracks.

Characterization

Jaws also works because Spielberg knew exactly what he was doing with the material – his trademark sentimentality, later a flaw, is a boon to this genre. We care desperately about some of the minor characters – Pippett the dog, for instance, or Alex’s mum, calling plaintively on the beach for her son who will never come out of the water again.

The relationship between the three central sharkhunters, Quint, Hooper and Chief Brody, is fluid and mesmerising, a three-way buddy movie. The three men could not be more different, and between them they represent the whole spectrum of Western masculinity. Quint (Robert Shaw, drawing on a star persona that encompassed everything macho from Shakespeare to Bond, via a couple of westerns) is the lone killer, existing outside the domestic and civilised in a realm of sea shanties, whisky and the bleached bones of past maritime conquests. Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) is the family man who sacrifices everything for his family. For a police chief he spends a lot of time in family spaces – in his home, on the beach, talking to kids. Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is the arrogant young academic, who flaunts his education and equipment.

Quint, Brody and Hooper in Jaws 1975
American men: Quint (Robert Shaw), Brody (Roy Scheider), Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss)

When these three men are crammed on the small boat the Orca, the conflict is much more complex and its resolution more rewarding than a straight up Man vs. Monster battle. In some ways this is Spielberg’s best film: he works tightly within the confines of genre and budget, and thrives on the discipline.

Hitchock’s influence can clearly be felt as Spielberg adopts many techniques developed by Hitchcock for the creation of suspense. He also proves himself an early master of shock/startle – the psycho-perceptual phenomenon now wildly over-used by horror filmmakers.

Sequels

It was inevitable that a film this successful would generate sequels – of extremely variable quality. Jaws 2 (1978) focuses on a second great white shark menacing Amity – but this time it’s a larger, hungrier female. Jaws 3-D sees Brody’s sons working at Sea World in Florida, where they come under attack from another ladyshark determined to protect her pup. More destruction is wrought on the Brody clan in Jaws 4, when a particularly smart and vengeful great white tracks Ellen to the Bahamas and proceeds to snack attack. Despite its excellent origins, the Jaws franchise remains one of the primary exhibits in any argument against sequels.

Further Reading

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Author: Karina

Writer. Historian. Teacher. Story Consultant. Twitter @medkno